I have just come from viewing “Of Gods and Men” (Des hommes et des dieux), a 2010 film in French and Arabic with English subtitles, directed by Xavier Beauvois. I would STRONGLY recommend it to the readers of Pray Tell. The film won the Grand Prix (2nd highest award) at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as both the Cesar and Lumiere awards for best film of 2010. It is based on an incident in 1996 when seven Trappist monks were found beheaded in Algeria. Was this the action of Islamist terrorists or of a faction of the Algerian military? The case remains unsolved to this day, but the focus of the film is on what would have led a group of Christian monks to remain living and praying in a Muslim area where their lives are increasingly in danger from civil unrest.
There are three reasons why I think it is important for liturgists to view this film. First, there is no debate about liturgical practices or texts shown anywhere in the film. Now I suspect that there might have been such debates in real life, but they clearly do not hold center stage in the lives of these Trappists. We see them praying and singing various sections of the Divine Office and of the Eucharist in their small chapel, mostly in French, though ending Compline one evening with a Marian antiphon in Latin. What I loved was how ordinary the liturgy was for these folks, how the personal quirks of individual monks blended into a common action of prayer, how the choreography of the rite had become second nature so that the community could engage full, conscious and active participation without self-consciousness.
Second, if I may be VERY personal, the serenity and balance of the monks’ lives embodies precisely why I was and am attracted to the practice and study of the liturgy. The monks make and market honey, visit the local village for an Islamic ceremony in which they participate as appropriate, plow and plant fields, interact with village and government officials, run a clinic, and dispense advice when asked. They prepare and eat meals together, hold chapter meetings around a table on which a single candle burns, write letters, engage in spiritual reading, pursue their own devotional prayer and receive visitors. The Liturgy of the Hours and the celebration of the Eucharist are of a piece with the rest of their lives: the words of the liturgical texts illuminate not only the round of feasts but the meaning of their activities, challenging, comforting and transforming them over the long haul. They are not prissy aesthetes or superficial purveyors of cheap bonhomie. They are people who take seriously the consequences of what baptism means (as one powerful scene between two of the monks makes clear.) It was this integration of personal growth in holiness, a passion for charity and justice, and a love for the sacramental worship of the Church that caught my heart and imagination 50 some years ago and still keeps me going today. Given the acrimony over the state of liturgical renewal in the English speaking world, it is very heartening to me to see depicted on the screen what this integral life might look like.
Finally, as a church musician I was especially touched by the chants sung by the actors portraying the monks in the film. They include pieces by Joseph Gelineau and Lucien Deiss as well as standard liturgical dialogues. Breathtaking, however, are some of the hymns by Didier Rimaud. I have had the privilege of singing some of his biblically evocative texts at meetings of Universa Laus and have marveled at the poetic insight and spiritual depth of his imagery. The following phrases stick in my memory, although I know the French originals are much more powerful and I have probably altered the translation since reading the subtitles: “…separating sand from water, / you created the earth like a cradle / to receive this Child of infinite love…” (a hymn for Christmas Eve) “…and yet you have a heart / for you love the prodigal son / and hold this sinner to your breast, / this ruined world…” Like many of the texts of Huub Oosterhuis, I am seared by the power and the beauty of these texts and would so love to sing them in liturgical contexts.
Finally, I think what makes the film so powerful for me is the palpable sense of communion and love that binds together the diverse personalities of the monks and radiates in their interchanges with the villagers, the terrorists, and the army officials. They witness to a love that passes understanding. The liturgy that holds my heart passes understanding as well; it is the offer and celebration of God’s fragile, defenseless, broken, tortured, murdered, risen, radiant, powerful, silent, mysterious, triumphant Love for us and our awe-filled and humble gratitude that such a Love could be real.